Five years ago a developer, a graphic designer and a student became the first employees of Small Improvements. The initial questions seemed simple. Why do annual performance reviews feel so painful and ineffective? Wouldn’t it be great to give ongoing, bite-sized feedback throughout the year? These questions that first kicked off Small Improvements five years ago, still provide the supporting foundation in everything that we do today.
But who are we and how did we get here? For that, we invite you to take a behind the scenes journey into Small Improvements history. So, sit back, prop your feet up and join us for a quick walk through five years of Small Improvements.
Flipping the performance review
Back in 2011, the idea of tossing the “traditional” performance review wasn’t nearly as trendy as it is now. Big companies like Accenture, Netflix and GE are making headlines today for tossing their “rank and yank” methods; but the alternative to these archaic systems for evaluating employee performance was less clear five years ago.
“We were hardly changing the world back then,” said our founder, Per Fragemann, “instead, we were getting future customers ready.” Per came from Atlassian, a company who, at that time, was leading the way in rethinking performance reviews. While their mentality toward ongoing performance development was innovative, the tool that they were using to capture it, was not. So, with Per’s $50,000 savings in the bank and a vision for a continuous feedback tool, the Small Improvements prototype was born.
Self-funded route: Bootstrapping growth
They say that 9 out of 10 startups fail, so yeah, the odds of success weren’t great. There’s an unrelenting robe of scrappiness that an entrepreneur must wear, along with the endurance for an ongoing series of “oh shit” moments.
We’ve never taken any outside investor funding! While there are rewards that come along with this, there’s also an undeniable series of struggles. You’re forced to be conscientious and meticulous in every employee that you hire and investment that you make. “There was a time when we only had one customer using the tool and funds were quickly running low,” said Per. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh shit, what am I doing here?’”
Per hired a student developer to help with his initial vision and, when he pitched his prototype to Atlassian, they jumped on board as our first customer. This gave us exposure to some of the most innovative companies around the world from very early on.
Our first three customers were given the software for free. “At that time, we were thankful just to have anybody use our product,” said our Director of Marketing, Linda Jonas. “If somebody bought into the idea, we were happy. Instead of charging for the software, we sought out customer stories. We wanted to learn first and foremost.”
Through word-of-mouth and relationship building, we attracted companies looking for more than a “check-box” approach to performance feedback. “Getting to one hundred customers, with Pinterest as our hundredth customer, was one of my proudest moments!” said Per. Our earliest customers truly helped to shape Small Improvements into what it is today.
How we work: The lean and agile advantage
We’re a lean, mean, fighting development machine at Small Improvements. We don’t set deadlines and we don’t make promises we can’t keep. Our preference? Under promise and over deliver. Build things the right way and build them efficiently.
We deploy new enhancements, multiple times, on a daily basis. “This allows us to easily deploy fixes, react quickly to problems and immediately start working on new projects,” said Sebastian, one of our senior developers. “As a developer this means that you can see your changes immediately reflected in a live system. There’s no bureaucracy or red tape that holds you back from deploying. We can work on projects in parallel. For example, one team can be making improvements under the dashboard while another team is refining an activity stream.”
There’s a refinement process that’s really important when working like this. Ideas start from a quick sketch on a wiki that get immediate feedback. Later, we conduct user testing to see how customers navigate and react. Our bi-annual “hackathons” hosted internally keep our ideas fresh and the innovation loop flowing!
Crafting a great product: Pivotal moments
If you’re unable to pivot the direction of a product in the moments that matter most, the odds of survival are slim. Initially, our product had an incredible focus on bite-sized feedback, but not a lot of functionality around structured feedback.
We realized early on that, while quick bites of timely feedback are essential, companies wanted more structure around 360 degree feedback and performance reviews. We also needed broader administrative and user management capabilities.
Being able to see this early on and quickly adapt, shaped the future of our product. We’re more than a single feature, we’re an entire performance feedback suite. This mentality has allowed us to focus on creating the best performance feedback solution. It’s also set us apart from the solutions that are either extremely niche or overly broad in their offering.
More than money: No need to sign on the dotted line
Yes, you need money to survive as a company. But, it’s not all about the money. We’ve never locked customers into contracts, in fact, we don’t have contracts at all! We want our customers to love using the product. Call it a deep sense of pride in what we’ve built and what we believe.
A good business is not purely about making money. We’ve said “no” to potential customers because we didn’t believe in their business model.
“There was a time when money was running out and a large potential customer approached us. It was a company that gave short term loans at high interest rates,” said Linda. “Per looked at their business model and recognized that they were putting people who were already in bad scenarios in an even worse situation. At that time, they would’ve been our biggest customer in terms of revenue. But, he turned them down because he didn’t believe that what they were doing was ethically or morally correct.”
We avoid working with clients who have a bad reputation or that don’t pass our moral compass. There’s a saying, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” We truly believe this, even if it means letting a customer go or missing out on an opportunity. Per said, “everyone has a little influence in making this world a better place. No matter how small your influence, you need to use what you can.”
Give back: Aligning with a cause
You don’t have to be a big company to make a difference. We wanted to give back, but we also wanted our employees to feel involved. We started by supporting nonprofits with free or half priced licenses to the platform. It’s been incredible to see the impact this alone has had in connecting us with organizations, like ZUMIX, that do such good for their communities.
As we grew, we wanted to donate, but in a way that allowed the whole team to have an influence. We began donating a percentage of our annual revenue to charities. Each employee is able to anonymously select a charity of their choice to allocate their “donation budget.” Thanks to this program, we’ve contributed more than $92,000 dollars incredible organizations around the world.
Forget the valley: Made in Germany
You’ll find our headquarters 9000 miles from Silicon Valley, in the beautiful city of Berlin. Our developers are able to jog alongside the Berlin Dome in the mornings or sit at the parks around Museum Island for lunch.
But, we didn’t always have the spacious office that we have today. It all started in Per’s studio apartment. The flat consisted of two tables and Per’s mattress in the corner. The next upgrade was to a slightly larger open space loft, with a telephone cubby that doubled as storage for Per’s bed! Truly fitting the live/work startup experience.
Today, our new office has doors! The building is a renovated old personal shopping area for luxurious clothing! There used to be an actual bar in one of the rooms but, for space purposes, we swapped it out for an antique 1830s travel bar. Check out the video capturing our office move!
Living globally, working remotely
Meanwhile, the rest of our team is scattered across the globe. We’ve been international from day one and when we had only four employees, we were already spread across three continents!
It’s all about work life integration here at Small Improvements. Take calls in your pajamas or answer emails from wherever in the world you have an internet connection. Whether co-working aboard the Customer Success Express or gathering with the team for an all-company trip, we find ways to get together.
“Your personal life feels so much more balanced. I can spend three weeks working in South Africa, not shave for a week, or take calls from the beach! How rad is that?” said Scott, a long-standing Customer Success team member.
There’s also an incredible amount of efficiency that comes with working remote. “You can be enormously productive because you have less distractions,” said our Customer Success teammate, Tore. “That also makes the time that we do get together that much sweeter!”
While a major part of our work requires being online, we deliberately take the time to “check out.” We travel from Vienna to Hamburg to New York for conferences. The team gets together at least once a year to hack away new ideas, share a cold brew and have adventures together. We avoid overtime, we’re cool with part-time work and every one is encouraged to take the time to turn off their email and decompress.
This is just the beginning
Up until now, we’ve been HR’s best kept secret. Our growth has been slow and steady thanks to the incredible customers, employees and friends that have shared our story. Through that, we’re proud to have more than 700 innovative customers, 21 employees and a product that’s innovating rapidly.
But, we’re just getting warmed up! We’ve got big plans ahead and aren’t slowing down now. We have a vision for our product that centers on empowering teams and passionate employees. While we were well ahead of our time in product five years ago, our focus is on staying ahead. We’re working hard to maintain that difficult balance between configurability, manageability, simplicity and functionality.
Per said it best as, “at the end of the day, it’s about how we can provide more and more value for our customers. All the while, keeping our philosophy and product simplicity in tact.”
Thank you to all who made the last five years possible, we can’t wait to see what’s next!